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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Herb Sugars Add Flavor to Summer Dishes and Drinks

By mid-June our herb garden is bursting with basil, thyme, rosemary, sage, and (of course) mint, and we take full advantage, mixing and matching the leaves to liven up whatever we're cooking. But we've just discovered how great herb-infused sugar can be.

Sprinkled over cut melon or strawberries, mixed into black tea or lemonade, or used to rim a cocktail glass (mojitos or Liberators, anyone?), these simple herb-and-sugar mixtures provide a powerful flavor boost. And they could not be easier to make. 

Most recipes call for large amounts of both herbs and sugar—a cup of sugar, half a cup or more of herbs—but unless you're planning on using a large amount right away, you could end up with depressingly blackened herbs. Basil, for one, does not like hanging around after it's been cut. Given how easy it is to make a batch of herb sugar, why not whip up smaller portions you can easily use? Say, a couple of tablespoons of minced basil, cilantro, or mint combined with a quarter-cup of sugar. 

Some recipes call for pounding the herbs with a mortar and pestle to release more of the flavor, but a food processor works very well. Just add your herbs, add your sugar, pulse a few times, and you're ready to go. 

If you know of other uses for this amazingly easy and delicious ingredient, please let us know. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fast-Cooking Polenta Saves the Day

We're happy to report that the long-awaited CSA season has arrived. Our first box, from Great Country Farms in Bluemont, Virginia, was heavy with fresh goodies, including a big bunch of kale, a pint of tart cherries, spring onions, summer squash, and zucchini.

Over the years we've been CSA members, we've learned that "the box," as we reverently call it, provides a great service in addition to its reliable load of produce: it reliably provides dinner. As long as our pantry has some grains, herbs, and spices, we always can pull dinner together.

Take last Friday. An exceptionally stress-filled week had left us exhausted, to the point that we didn't even want to go out for a quick bite. At the same time, we hadn't had time to shop for groceries, so the refrigerator shelves were pretty bare. What to do?

We remembered that big bunch of CSA kale. Combined with polenta, it would make a fast, nutritious, delicious dinner. So we trimmed the kale, cut it into thin strips, and sautéed it with a little chopped garlic. We heated the oven to 400 degrees. And we made polenta.

Basically cornmeal mush, polenta is one of the fastest-cooking dishes you can make. You just boil water, whisk in the yellow grains, stir for a few minutes over low heat, and there you have it: an excellent base for just about anything. You can rich it up with globs of gorgonzola or goat cheese, or just a few tablespoons of grated Parmesan; you can cool it and slice it for grilling.

In this case, we combined the mushy cooked polenta (dressed up with a little Parmesan) with the cooked kale and garlic, then transferred the mixture to a pie pan. We baked the polenta pie for about 20 minutes (if we hadn't been in a hurry, we would have let it bake for an additional five or ten minutes, for a light-brown crust). Combined with a fast tomato jam and a crisp chardonnay, this made a fine fast dinner.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Fry Sauce: It's Good with Everything

We're lucky to have very accomplished foodie friends—people who can not only eat but cook, and cook much better than we could ever dream of cooking. One is Susie Middleton, queen of all that is fast, fresh, and green. Another is Martha Holmberg. Martha, a former editor of Fine Cooking magazine, just published a book on crêpes that will make you want to eat crêpes for the next year.

Lately, we've been enjoying Martha's recipe for fry sauce. We'd never heard of this luscious, slightly spicy condiment until we read the article; now we slather it on everything from Martha's sweet potato fries to roasted asparagus to grilled zucchini. We figure it would make a wonderful substitute for Russian dressing in a Reuben sandwich (or, in Ruth's case, seitan sandwich). We figure it would be good with just about anything.

As grilling season fires up, we're looking forward to making a lot of fry sauce. Try it yourself—it will make your summer delicious!

Monday, June 4, 2012

It's Always Something!

If you have one of Black & Decker's Spacemaker under-the-counter coffee machines, you should beware! Your coffee pot may decide to attack you.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Cool Off with Aguas Frescas

Here in Northern Virginia, summer arrived with its usual wallop on Memorial Day weekend, complete with lung-crushing humidity and sledgehammer sunlight. We love summer, but the sudden change in weather made us crave cooling food and drinks.

We had just bought a nice watermelon, so we decided to try making aguas frescas. These refreshing Mexican fruit drinks are a great alternative to sugary sodas and very easy to make. Watermelon and cantaloupe are excellent; so's pineapple. It's good to have a sweet piece of fruit, but if the fruit isn't sweet enough for you, you can add sugar or agave syrup to get the sweetness the way you want it.

Watermelon Agua Fresca

4 cups seedless watermelon chunks
4 cups water
2 T. sugar or agave syrup
2 T. lime juice

1. Put two cups of watermelon chunks in a blender and whir until liquified. Strain.

2. Mix the liquified watermelon juice with the water, sweetener, and lime juice.

3. Finely chop the remaining two cups of watermelon, and add the fruit to the liquid mix.

4. Let sit for one hour, then enjoy. For extra coolness, garnish your glass with a sprig of mint or a wedge of lime.

This drink is the perfect reward for a bout of lawn mowing or gardening.